34 AWOL sentences a day. Russian military courts set a new record in March 2024
34 AWOL sentences a day. Russian military courts set a new record in March 2024
12 April 2024, 12:13

Art by Mila Grabowski / Mediazona

In March alone, garrison and district courts in Russia carried out nearly 700 sentences in cases of “absence without leave” (Article 337 of the Criminal Code), Mediazona research shows. The number of cases against refuseniks started to grow substantially after Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” in September 2022. But the growth in 2024 is unprecedented.

Just like before, the majority of sentences in cases like this are suspended: this allows to send a soldier who went AWOL or tired to desert back to the front lines.

684 sentences in AWOL cases were carried out by Russian military courts in March 2024, Mediazona was able to establish during research of publicly available records. This means that judges were handing down 34 sentences under Article 337 each working day of the month.

Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilisation” decree in September 2022 not only called for the military service of hundreds of thousands of men, but also prohibited dismissal from the army: all contracts with the Ministry of Defense essentially became indefinite. At the same time, the State Duma adopted amendments to the articles of the Criminal Code on crimes against military service, adding parts on committing an offence during mobilisation or martial law.

Soon after, military courts were flooded with criminal cases against those who wanted to leave the service. The rate of growth of such cases increased continuously: nearly every month the number of cases that were filed with the courts increased.

Before the record in March 2024, the busiest month for judges was February: then, for the first time in history, they received more than seven hundred (718) AWOL cases. The pace is not slowing down even now: almost three hundred verdicts were handed down in a week and a half in April.

In total, since the beginning of 2024, military courts have received nearly 2,300 AWOL cases, and almost 7,400 cases since the beginning of mobilisation. Most of them come from the Moscow region (496 cases), Sverdlovsk region (258) and Orenburg region (255).

Mediazona already wrote that in cases of AWOL, judges prefer to impose suspended sentences so that the soldier can be sent to war. Sometimes this condition is put on paper, right in the sentence.

This trend remains. Out of almost 700 sentences for March 2024, only 44 have been published. In the vast majority of them (32 cases), the judges chose a suspended sentence.

One court decision from March can be considered almost an acquittal. In May 2023, Alexander Eliseev, a contract soldier of the Tula garrison, came home to his mother “and informed her that he had refused military service, noting that he would return back to service at a later date.” Six months later, he returned to his unit, but a medical commission found he had a mental disorder and transferred him to the category of “restricted for service.”

Judge Ravil Faizullin of the Tula Garrison Military Court decided that Eliseev was still guilty of abandoning his unit and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment, but released him from punishment “due to changes in the situation.”

Sometimes even a sentence with an actual term of imprisonment cannot prevent a soldier from being sent to the front. Mediazona found news about the death of Ilsur Fatkhutdinov, a contract serviceman from Tatarstan, who in March 2023 was sentenced to 5.5 years in a penal colony under the article on unauthorised abandonment of the unit. He died in Ukraine on 3 February 2024.

Under the stricter article on desertion (No. 338 in the Criminal Code), 254 cases have already been brought to the courts since the beginning of mobilisation. And another 536 cases under the milder article on failure to obey orders (No. 332 in the Criminal Code).

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